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This question already has an answer here:

I've often wondered what the point is of someone keeping time with a baton or hand, when the orchestra is highly skilled and can understand the piece and the score to a very high standard. (I'm thinking in the context of major national symphony/philharmonic orchestras, where member expertise/quality/competence is not in doubt).

I understand that a conductor is also responsible for other functions, some of which are also expressed using the baton or other hand gestures:

  • interpreting the piece and how they want it played: this would seem to be the main or best-known function, but surely with competent players it gets explained and points covered during rehearsals. By the time of performance, the players know what's wanted in detail and will have annotated their scores for their parts. (If they don't, they won't get more info during the performance than they could at rehearsal.)

  • keeping time: the bare time keeping function itself seems something that a metronome could do, if it was needed at all. (I'm assuming a competent national player can keep time in a performance)

  • shading the piece for the audience mood, hall acoustics, and how people are on the day: wouldn't need baton style beats per se to do this?

  • providing communication between different groups that can't see or hear each other or whose perception would be distorted by location, line of sight, etc wouldn't need beats per se (or at least not continually)?

  • off-stage musical directorship: sponsors, pieces, terms, negotiations, organisation, membership. Non baton work.

So my question is whether the baton or hand's overt time-keeping role is essentially not much needed, and in reality it's just a vehicle for expressing other kinds of performance guidance. Alternatively, whether the orchestra does actually need a time-keeper as well as an expression-guider during a performance (so to speak).

Put another way, if a conductor could express stylistic guidance in a performance, and convey how they wanted the music expressed and parts played, in a way that wasn't also keeping time, would they be able to adequately do their role and would the orchestra be affected?

marked as duplicate by Richard, Doktor Mayhem Sep 20 '17 at 18:30

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It seems to be presumed that once a tempo has been established, then that tempo continues. That is not the case in a lot of orchestral music. So a metronome just wouldn't hack it. One of the conductor's jobs is to keep up to a hundred players in time with each other, and often spread out, at that, so just listening to each other for tempo isn't the best.

With acceleration and deceleration, the rate isn't going to be guessed or remembered by all, so watching the baton helps considerably.

There are far more, subtle things that the baton is used for, and I guess each conductor has his own quirks, which get explained or picked up in rehearsals.

And since the question is specific to batons, the implement itself isn't always necessary, or even used. An arm extension, if you will.

  • In a smaller ensemble I'm certain that players can listen to each other, and often do. But when you have a large philharmonic orchestra in a large hall setting? Listening to each other amidst the echo and delay is near impossible. Someone over at my answer doesn't seem to understand that – psosuna Sep 20 '17 at 21:57
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Very little talking is done in rehearsal. Partly because there isn't time, partly because most information can be conveyed so much better by gesture.

The tempo is conveyed in the initial upbeat. Then it may seem that the conductor isn't particularly 'beating time' until the tempo needs to be changed or modified. He won't be acting like a military band conductor with a traditional march - that IS a largely decorative function! He is moulding the performance in other ways though.

In a good orchestra, with a good conductor, an enormous (if subtle) amount of extra information is conveyed in performance.

But the answer to your question is that the conductor SETS the time, but then often has better things to do than just be a metronome.

I guess this might be a good time for anyone who hasn't already seen this... (but note that Bernstein was grandstanding, mostly for the benefit of the TV cameras, and it WAS an encore.)

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interpreting the piece and how they want it played: ... surely with competent players it gets explained and points covered during rehearsals. By the time of performance, the players know what's wanted in detail...

Professional orchestras don't rehearse much. They do a different program each weekend, and get two rehearsals for it. That's enough time to go through everything and get on the same page about interpretation, but not enough time for everyone to internalize it and make it automatic.

keeping time: the bare time keeping function itself seems something that a metronome could do, if it was needed at all. (I'm assuming a competent national player can keep time in a performance)

Tempos change. Everyone's going to have a slightly different idea about how to execute tempo changes.

shading the piece for the audience mood, hall acoustics, and how people are on the day: wouldn't need baton style beats per se to do this?

Well, part of that shading is tempo adjustment. But you're mostly correct that interpretative things are somewhat separate from time. But every gesture you make is going to have a timing element to it (meaning, it has to happen at some point in time), and if you don't do things in time, then it becomes a distraction.

providing communication between different groups that can't see or hear each other or whose perception would be distorted by location, line of sight, etc wouldn't need beats per se (or at least not continually)?

One of the most important things to communicate between different groups is timing.

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Two answers. 1)You need to realize that thousands of musicians and audience members are acutely aware of the ability of each conductor to impart his interpretation of the score.

2) There are in fact small ensembles and medium-size orchestras which self-conduct. See A Far Cry for one near to me (and to my heart).

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Answering this from a general physics perspective, to replace a conductor with a metronome would not do, for the mere fact that sound does not travel as quickly as light does. Meaning, if you were to place a metronome at the podium where the conductor stands, in a traditional setup, your strings would be ahead of time from the instruments farther back, such as your brass and your percussion. Likewise, there would be an additional delay from the time it takes for the sound to travel the same distance back. One would think that in such a confined space such as a stage that the speed of sound would not prove to be an issue, but the time delay can certainly be discerned by the audience.

In addition, from a mechanics/electronics standpoint, who is going to be administering the tempo changes in a piece to a metronome if everyone's got an active part in the ensemble?

Musicians in an ensemble learn to read (sometimes, predict) the conductor's baton work, in a way that allows the player to be in time with the rest of the cohesive ensemble. The conductor's primary goal is of course to express time, but an extremely close second, if not concurrent first, is to express feeling and interpretation. The musician may be of a caliber to give correct interpretation and appropriate tempo without batting an eye, but it's worth nothing if the musician can't also read someone else's interpretation and tempo. It's the conductor's job as a whole to ensure that all of the ensemble is performing in a unified fashion by being the visual font of time, dynamics, and emotion. All this notwithstanding whatever comments conductors and directors have during rehearsals.

For what it's worth, in ensembles where there is no conductor, SOMEONE is doing that role, for example, the concertmaster/mistress in a chamber ensemble.

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    If the physics of wave propagation in gaseous media prevent the replacement of conductors with click-tracks, perhaps blinking lights will do.... – David Bowling Sep 20 '17 at 17:37
  • if and only if they can be automated to blink with tempo changes, and in different colors for different moods, then sure. but how will stylistic expressions also be conveyed? – psosuna Sep 20 '17 at 17:45
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    I really don't think the distance is going to make a significant difference to the perceived tempos whether directed by light or sound considering the placement of players in an orchestra. – Tim Sep 20 '17 at 19:45
  • Answering this from a general physics perspective... - but the physics perspective is not the musical perspective. Can you document your claim that the few nanoseconds of difference in the relatively small confines of a stage and concert hall will make a difference in how music is heard by the players and the audience? Your claim might be contradicted by musicians who conduct as much with their playing as with their movements. – Stinkfoot Sep 20 '17 at 20:10
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    All this seems somewhat irrelevant, given that light travels faster than sound! Any signal from the conductor will be received in time for it to be translated anyway! So 'playing before the beat' appears to not to have the laws of physics to account for, but musical Interpretation by the conductor... – Tim Sep 21 '17 at 8:32

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